It should have just been a pipe dream. Actually, it was just a pipe dream. One of those things where you say it as a joke and everyone laughs because they think you’re crazy.
That’s quite literally how the idea for a farm in Yucatan was conceived. As a joke.
While riding an RTV down a stretch of back road in Yucatan, Director of Operations, Jon Schwalls, shares how he and Southern Valley President, Kent Hamilton, dreamed and joked about farming in Yucatan. With his voice raised over the roar of the Kubota engine and the wind slapping our faces, he tells the story.
At the time, Jon and Kent had been exploring a variety of options to grow produce year-round in an effort to make Southern Valley more sustainable. Meanwhile, one day at the airport, Kent ran into a relative who told him about a shipping company that was shipping from the Yucatan into the US. This got Kent thinking, “Why couldn’t we just ship produce out of Mexico?”
Shortly after the chance encounter at the airport, Jon and Kent struck out for Mexico for a meeting with an organized gathering of potential growers. As Jon explains, “Ten minutes into the meeting we knew this wasn’t going to happen.” They had two more days left in Mexico and an agronomist mentioned the size of the farms down in Yucatan. So they drove down to take a look and liked what they saw. But still, two boys from Cool Springs, Georgia farming in Yucatan – this could only be spoken out loud as a joke.
And that’s all it was when it was first said out loud. A joke.
“Hey, what if we farmed down here?”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Kind of. But really…what if we farmed down here?”
Three pages of double-columned bullet points later and they had a list of reasons of why this could never happen. Or better, a list of what they would need in order to turn this joke of a dream into reality.
That was August of 2002.
They came back to Georgia and kept dreaming. They even went so far as to ask the financial controller if maybe this wasn’t a dream. Surprisingly, Valda gave her blessing, but on one condition, saying, “We can do this, but once we take this step there’s no turning back. If we do this and it fails, we’ll be finished.”
A huge risk to say the least, but in their minds, what other option did they have? If they didn’t take the risk, the current farming operation wouldn’t continue to be sustainable without a winter supply of produce. If they took the risk and lost, their successful-so-far farming days were over and 15 years of sleep-deprived nights, countless hours spent working, and untold sacrifice for the family business were going down the drain along with the money they would invest in Yucatan.
In January of 2003, the paperwork was signed to purchase 1200 acres in Yucatan, Mexico.
Over the next year, leadership from Southern Valley picked up and relocated to Yucatan for anywhere from 3 months to 1 year. Valda and Wanda’s husbands, Steve and Ed, spent a year living in a remodeled shipping container as they cleared land and set up infrastructure. During the span of 2003, other staff members spent countless hours in Yucatan as land was cleared, staff was hired, a packing house was built, soil was cultivated, and workers were trained.
On February 5, 2004, the first cucumbers were picked in the field and by 2:00 that afternoon the electricity came on for the first time. Jon describes it as “a literal act of God.” For you non-farm types, this means that product picked earlier that day was able to be packed and cooled that night. A very necessary occurrence of events they couldn’t have planned even if they’d tried.
As he turns the Kubota around to head back to the farm, Jon looks at me and says, “You’ve never seen the hard years, Katie. Only the good ones.” It turns out the large upfront investment in Yucatan coupled with a fallout in the market, meant those first few years after moving into Yucatan were tough ones.
Then, in 2011, Western Mexico froze over, Florida flooded out and froze, and their investment into Yucatan soil paid off. Now, five years later, we can visit the farm in Yucatan and what we see is a tropical oasis of a farm running like a well-oiled machine. What a needed reminder of what others sacrificed before us in order for Southern Valley to be the success it is today.
While the purpose of the farm was initially to have year-round production, its establishment unknowingly provided a humanitarian service as well. The Yucatan farm now provides jobs to 1200 people in a region with little industry. When the Mexican government visited the farm in 2005 and interviewed workers, they were told by employees that Southern Valley was “sent by angels from God” as the company had provided much-needed jobs along with fair pay for that area.
Jon’s brother, Dug, later recounted to me another interesting turn of events. He says while he was down at the Yucatan farm one year, a local worker told him that long before Southern Valley came along, that region of Yucatan was commonly referred to as “Valle del Sur” which literally translates “Valley of the South”. Valle del Sur also happens to be the Spanish translation of “Southern Valley”.
Southern Valley it was and seemed destined to become.